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Freight interests frustrated with leadership vacuum at DOT

WASHINGTON — A group of 16 organizations representing the full scope of the freight supply chain are calling on Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg to stand up a long-awaited freight office within the U.S. Department of Transportation and designate someone to run it.

The major concern of the groups pushing for action — which include the American Association of Port Authorities, the American Trucking Associations, the Association of American Railroads and various shipper and business lobbyists — is that billions of dollars in infrastructure funding allotted by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) risks being lost without better coordination and oversight from Washington.

The Office of Multimodal Freight Infrastructure and Policy (Freight Office), which was authorized by IIJA in November 2021, is “designed to coordinate with the business community and states and other freight stakeholders to address freight challenges, including helping states direct funding to support their economic competitiveness and anticipate challenges to America’s freight networks,” the groups wrote in an Aug. 30 letter to Buttigieg.

Buttigieg in New York this year showcasing mega grant project funding (Photo: AP/John Minchillo)

But they point out a person designated to lead the office — an assistant secretary for multimodal freight, also required under the IIJA — has yet to be announced, and a formal organizational structure has yet to be developed.

“We find this concerning as this office promises to play a crucial role in the development of long-term multimodal freight planning, as well as serve as a critical coordination point between the Departments of State, Commerce, Energy, and Homeland Security and other agencies with jurisdiction over supply chain policy,” they asserted.

“Without the necessary leadership in place, much of this interagency coordination is occurring on an ad hoc basis, impacting the efficiency and decision-making in how these tasks are carried out. For these reasons and more, we urge you to act and designate an acting leader of the [Freight Office], as well as move forward with officially establishing the office within the Department.”

DOT declined to comment on the status of the Freight Office and its leadership when FreightWaves inquired in July, following months of growing frustration and concern by the industry and transportation officials. DOT spokeswoman Kerry Arndt told FreightWaves in April that the department would be providing details “in the coming months.”

As FreightWaves previously noted, getting the office up and running is particularly important given that the IIJA authorized $660 billion in funds for new and existing DOT programs for fiscal years 2022 through 2026 — more than twice the amount in the previous five-year authorization.

Since IIJA went into effect, DOT has issued several infrastructure funding opportunities and awards from several competitive grant programs. However, the application and permitting process has slowed progress, according to officials contacted by FreightWaves.

In June, the Biden administration put in place a streamlined application process for more than $5.5 billion earmarked for major infrastructure projects.

The historic level of IIJA funding approved by lawmakers was accomplished in part with an economic backdrop of significant supply chain disruptions caused by the pandemic. While backlogs at U.S. freight gateways have gone away, trends such as shifting trade routes and reshoring and nearshoring are creating new challenges, the organizations told Buttigieg, which they contend makes it critical that DOT gets the Freight Office up and running.

“With all the activity and attention around supply chains and logistics, this coordinating role is more important than ever.”

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Click for more FreightWaves articles by John Gallagher.

The post Freight interests frustrated with leadership vacuum at DOT appeared first on FreightWaves.